The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, famously said in 2007 that “in Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” That strategic view was supposed to change when Barack Obama was elected president. It was candidate Obama, after all, who argued that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to be fighting, and a significant distraction from the far more important conflict in Afghanistan.
Accordingly, the new president announced in March 2009 that he would add to the 30,000 American forces already in theater another 21,000 troops, and then, rejecting Vice President Biden’s advice to scale back the war effort, decided last December to add 30,000 more. The only real criticism from war supporters at the time focused on the president’s scheduled July 2011 troop drawdown.
But there is also the equally important issue of whether the number of troops to be deployed is in fact enough to wage a successful counterinsurgency. And just as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, as the troops fighting in Afghanistan are known, General David Petraeus, has suggested that next July’s drawdown date might not be set in stone, it would also be useful to revisit the number of American troops committed to Afghanistan. After all, the 30,000 additional troops the president called for last December were less than the 40,000 recommended by Petraeus’s predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal.
At the time, the president’s team argued that our allies would make up the deficit. In December 2009, however, the number of non-American troops stood at 38,370, and as of June, the figure was up by less than 3,000. Even this limited increase, moreover, included few forces ready for frontline counter-insurgency duty. And since then, 1,500 Dutch combat soldiers have left Afghanistan, another 2,800 Canadian forces will be leaving in 2011, and the new government in London is already talking about beginning a drawdown as early as next year. The increased allied contribution—both in real numbers and actual combat capacity—is largely illusory.
Of course, just having enough “boots on the ground” does not guarantee a successful counterinsurgency. As the French discovered in Algeria and the Russians in Chechnya, troop levels alone are not enough to win an irregular war. But numbers matter. While it is important to have a sophisticated understanding of the “human terrain” of local customs, relations, and personalities, counterinsurgency campaigns require sufficient forces to clear and hold, and to do so for an extended period of time.
Exactly how many troops are needed to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign has been the subject of a considerable amount of research over the last several years. Some studies focus on the ratio of counterinsurgent forces to insurgents, but since the center of gravity of a successful counterinsurgency campaign is in winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population, most research looks at force-to-civilian ratios. The number usually given is one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians, or 20 per 1,000—a ratio supported by recent history.
For peacekeeping and stabilization efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo, the force to population ratio was 19:1,000. More pertinently, the summer following President Bush’s January 2007 decision to surge troops in Iraq, the ratio of combined security forces in Iraq (182,000 coalition forces, 278,000 Iraqi security forces and tens of thousands of the Sons of Iraq) to a population of 27.5 million was virtually dead on the 20:1,000 mark. By April 2009, the numbers were closer to 29:1,000.
In comparison, the ratio for Afghanistan at the end of 2009 was only 9:1,000. By the fall of 2010, American force levels will be just shy of 100,000. Combined with allied and partner-nation contributions of some 45,000 troops (many of which are noncombat), 134,000 Afghan soldiers and 109,000 Afghan national policemen (both still on a steep learning curve), the total number of security forces will be less than 390,000, or 280,000 troops short of meeting that 1:20 ratio for an Afghan population of about 33 million.
Afghanistan is a big place: approximately one and half times the size of Iraq with a population roughly the same size as Iraq’s, but more dispersed. Accordingly, the game plan had been to narrow counterinsurgency efforts to a limited number of population centers and commercial routes, predominantly in the southern part of the country, accepting various levels of risk in adjacent areas and other regions. And narrow it is. For example, in the April report to Congress on the Afghan campaign, the Pentagon noted that ISAF had identified 80 “key terrain” districts, along with 41 other “area of interest” districts—out of nearly 400 total districts in the country. But, the “ISAF Joint Command (IJC) assessed that, out of the 121 districts, it had the resources to conduct operations in 48.” And, as Michael O’Hanlon has recently written in Foreign Affairs, while the number of districts with “satisfactory” security has improved modestly over the past nine months, “ISAF currently estimates that only 35 percent of the priority districts have ‘good’ security or better.”
That’s a problem, even as it has been argued that the war against the Taliban is not a country-wide campaign, but is principally focused on the Pashtun belt in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Two recent incidents, however, suggest that the insurgency is not so easily contained. First was the slaughter of a Christian medical team in Badakhshan Province in the ostensibly quiet sector of northern Afghanistan, and then there was the public torture and murder of a pregnant widow in Badghis in northwestern Afghanistan. As Bill Roggio notes, “Just a few years ago, Badghis province wasn’t considered a security problem. But over the past three years, the Taliban have slowly taken control of districts in Badghis and have implemented their brutal version of sharia.” Although the strength of the Taliban and its allies still lies principally in the south and the east, their footprint, as General Petraeus acknowledges, has expanded outside those areas. Since 2005, the Taliban has tripled the number of its shadow governors, which gives the insurgents a presence in virtually every province. According to NATO’s own data, by late 2009 the Taliban was a constant or periodic hostile presence in about half the country, with some capability in the remaining 40 percent.
There’s also this: Obama has deployed fewer actual counterinsurgents in Afghanistan than Bush did in Iraq. Bush’s surge included 21,500 soldiers and Marines ready for combat; the remaining additional forces consisted mainly of support elements, aviation units, and military police. In contrast, of Obama’s 30,000 just over 15,000 are dedicated, ground-pounding counterinsurgents, with a higher percentage going to support and training. This problem isn’t entirely of Obama’s own making. By the time Bush ordered a troop increase, the supporting military infrastructure in Iraq had been well established, and there was less need to add more “tail” to support combat operations. This has not been so in Afghanistan, where the country’s mountainous and varied geography and its isolated location demand more supporting elements in aviation and logistics.
Nor does this account for the bumps in the road that mark most military campaigns, such as last February’s clearing operation in Marjah, a onetime Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province. With the Pentagon no doubt pressed to show results quickly and also not to tie down Marines who could be used in other clearing operations, it declared the town effectively cleared of the Taliban after two short weeks. But attempts to turn the town’s security over to Afghan forces and special police in the weeks that followed only resulted in the resurgence of Taliban activity, whipsawing the townspeople in a way that means it will take even longer to assure them that they should bet on their long-term security resting with the Afghan government. Securing Helmand and Kandahar is probably going to require more time and more resources than the optimistic plans set out by General McChrystal. This awareness is reflected in General Petraeus’s new guidelines specifying that ISAF forces will gradually step back from areas that have been pacified instead of trying to hand off the task to the still maturing Afghan forces all at once.
The shortage of trainers for the Afghan Army and the Afghan police complicates matters further, as does President Karzai’s insistence on the reduction of private contractors performing security missions throughout the country. Add Pakistan’s reluctance to deal decisively with the insurgent safe havens on its side of the border, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that more combat-ready troops are needed if we are to succeed in the Afghan mission.
In his Foreign Affairs article, O’Hanlon describes President Obama’s decision last December to send additional troops to Afghanistan as his “attempt to have his cake and eat it, too.” “Obama tried to be muscular enough to create a chance to win the war while at the same time keeping the war’s critics acquiescent.” But being too clever by half is no way to run a war. And the addition of a July 2011 timeline for the start of a drawdown only compounds the error. In the absence of some compelling necessity—which in this case does not exist—it is absurd to fix either hard deadlines or troop levels.
No one wants an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan. But from 2001 until now, both the United States and its allies have taken an economy of force approach. There were enough troops to topple the Taliban and then just enough to keep Afghanistan from reverting to Taliban control. There have never been enough forces, however, to defeat them and to stabilize the country. With the addition of 30,000 American troops, there will undoubtedly be progress. But it would be a strategic roll of the dice to expect to win this war by hoping we have “just enough” forces to carry out the campaign successfully.
It is difficult to say with precision what the number of additional troops should be. That would require familiarity with in-theater intelligence about the enemy as well as a realistic assessment of the rate at which Afghan troops and police will become self-sufficient. But as a start, we might revisit General McChrystal’s assessment that 40,000 more troops were needed—not the 30,000 that were sent and have only just fully arrived. Adding three Army combat brigades, some 10,000 troops, would give commanders more flexibility to act with the kind of resoluteness that marked the surge in Iraq in 2007 and that allowed it to succeed.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.